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Raitt willing to serve in an O’Leary-led Conservative caucus

By Derek Abma      

Lisa Raitt says Kevin O’Leary is ‘wrong’ for Canada and the Conservative Party, but she is willing to turn the other cheek if he becomes leader.

Kevin O'Leary has been a target of Lisa Raitt and other candidates in the Conservative leadership race. It remains to be seen how other candidates will fit into caucus if Mr. O'Leary becomes leader. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright
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Conservative MP and leadership candidate Lisa Raitt has a website dedicated to telling people that Kevin O’Leary is “wrong for the Conservative Party and wrong for Canada,” but says she’s willing to put all that aside and support him if he becomes leader.

And that support includes serving as a critic in an O’Leary-led Conservative caucus or a minister in his cabinet if the party forms the government.

“Whoever the leader is, they’re going to pick who they want to be as a critic and who they want to be as a cabinet minister,” Ms. Raitt (Milton, Ont.) said in an interview last week with The Hill Times. “If I’m asked by any leader to serve, of course I will serve. Because it’s serving the Canadian public and there’s no greater way to serve than by being a member of a cabinet, and I have that experience.”

Ms. Raitt (Milton, Ont.) tweeted that Mr. O’Leary was a “chicken” after he opted not to participate in a debate in Edmonton in February. And her campaign is behind a website, www.StopKevinOLeary.com, that says that Mr. O’Leary is “wrong for the Conservative Party and wrong for Canada.”

But she said if “the membership has elected [a leader], my job is to work with our leader and support our leader, and I will do absolutely everything I can to do so.”

More controversy related to Mr. O’Leary and the Conservative leadership race broke out late last week when he accused some within the party of selling fake memberships in an attempt to “buy a leadership victory.” He didn’t name any names, but reports indicated the campaign of Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) is under scrutiny.

Mr. Bernier’s campaign was non-committal about how willing he would be to work within a Conservative caucus led by Mr. O’Leary.

“I don’t think that’s something that going to happen,” Maxime Hupé Labelle, spokesman for Mr. Bernier, said about the prospect of his candidate working within an O’Leary-led caucus. “We’re raising more money. We’re selling more memberships than him. Maxime has been campaigning for a full year here in Canada. Kevin O’Leary has been campaigning part-time.”

Mr. Labelle said Mr. O’Leary’s accusations last week amounted to “mudslinging” and “dirty tricks to win this, but Maxime is winning and that’s why he’s being attacked by Kevin.”

Asked how Mr. O’Leary would fare within a Bernier-led caucus, Mr. Labelle noted how Mr. O’Leary has not committed to running for a seat in the House of Commons if he doesn’t win the Conservative leadership. If did, Mr. Labelle said Mr. Bernier would select the most qualified people available a critics or for cabinet, and wouldn’t say how likely it is that Mr. O’Leary would make the cut.

On Friday, the Conservative Party announced that after an “expedited review,” it had found 1,351 party memberships had been bought “through two IP addresses which were not purchased by those members. Those purchases were made anonymously through the Conservative Party of Canada website.”

Despite her willingness to work with him, Ms. Raitt said she stands by what she’s said about Mr. O’Leary, adding that he would be “a very hard sell” as Conservative leader in the next election “because of some of the things that he’s said in the past that will be pointed to by the Liberals and NDP.”

An incident that stands out for Ms. Raitt is when, during a 2011 episode of The Lang & O’Leary Exchange—a CBC TV show co-hosted by Mr. O’Leary and Amanda Lang—Mr. O’Leary said: “Elect me as prime minister for 15 minutes, I will make unions illegal. Anyone that remains a union member will be thrown in jail.”

Ms. Raitt was Labour minister in prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and facing a possible strike by Air Canada flight attendants at the time.

“The folks in Milton who vote for me belong to unions, and they’re good people, and they deliver great products for Canadians to sell,” she said. “I would have a problem with a leader who had denigrated them and their choice to be in a union.”

Kevin O’Leary has been a target of Lisa Raitt and other candidates in the Conservative leadership race. It remains to be seen how other candidates will fit into caucus if Mr. O’Leary becomes leader. The Hill Times photographs by Jake Wright

Ms. Raitt added that she worries about Mr. O’Leary’s ability to work with other parties if the Conservatives ever found themselves in a minority-government position.

Yet, she also had positive things to say about him. “I do like what Kevin says on the economy. I do think he’s a masterful communicator.”

Ms Raitt was speaking before Mr. O’Leary’s allegations of fraud within the party came out. Following this, she said on Twitter: “The integrity of the membership & rules that govern the #cpcldr race must be maintained. Any allegations contrary, demand an investigation.”

She isn’t the only Conservative leadership candidate who has taken shots at Mr. O’Leary. After Mr. O’Leary posted a video of himself shooting automatic weapons at a Miami gun range on the same day as the funerals of three of the six killed in the Jan. 29 Québec City mosque shooting, Conservative leadership candidate Michael Chong (Wellington-Halton Hills, Ont.) said, “That video will cost us the next election,” and he referred to Mr. O’Leary as “Rambo.”

Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) has criticized the amount of time Mr. O’Leary spends in the United States, and told him at a recent debate that being party leader “is not a part-time job.” Conservative leadership candidate Deepak Obhrai (Calgary Forest Lawn, Alta.), at the same debate, told Mr. O’Leary to “learn the Constitution” to better understand provincial rights after Mr. O’Leary said he would impose financial penalties on provinces that have carbon taxes.

When asked how comfortable he would be working in a caucus led by Mr. O’Leary, Mr. Scheer’s campaign officials forwarded an emailed statement from him in which he repeated, “Being the leader of the Conservative Party is not a part-time job.”

He added: “I will keep fighting for conservative values and opposing the Trudeau government no matter who is leader. That said, I’m running because I want to unite all conservatives in order to beat Trudeau in 2019, and I know I can, which also means all my fellow leadership candidates would be welcome in my caucus, were they to run for a seat.”

Mr. Obhrai’s campaign declined a request to comment on his willingness to work within an O’Leary-led Conservative caucus. Officials for the campaign Mr. Chong did not respond to a request for comment.

Harsh criticism in this leadership debate hasn’t been exclusively aimed at Mr. O’Leary. Mr. Obhrai has accused Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch (Simcoe-Grey, Ont.) of practising a kind of “divisive politics” that has become common in the United States, resulting in immigrants getting killed there. Mr. Chong has accused Ms. Leitch of “Trump-style politics.”

Yet, unlike with Mr. O’Leary, polls are not showing Ms. Leitch as a favourite to win the leadership. Polling done by Mainstreet Research for iPolitics in late February and early March showed Mr. O’Leary as the first-ballot favourite for about 24 per cent of party members polled, followed by Mr. Bernier at 19 per cent. The next three were Mr. Scheer at eight per cent, Ms. Raitt at seven per cent, and Ms. Leitch at six per cent.

Ari Laskin, a spokesman for Mr. O’Leary, would not say if the tone of this leadership race would make it impractical for some of Mr. O’Leary’s opponents to be welcomed into a caucus led by him and given prominent roles. Rather, he said Mr. O’Leary is focused on defeating the Liberals in 2019.

“We will continue to focus on the one person who is hurting Canadians’ pocketbooks, Justin Trudeau, and not get distracted by the fact that others perceive Mr. O’Leary as the only threat to their own campaigns,” he said.

Joe Jordan, a senior associate with Bluesky Strategy Group and former Liberal MP, said: “The personal attacks have surprised me a bit in this one. And it’s not just Lisa and O’Leary. It’s candidates against Kellie Leitch and whatnot. I guess it’s just the fact that there’s so many in the race that people are desperately trying to differentiate themselves.”

There are 14 candidates in the Conservative leadership race.

All smiles. From the left, Conservative leadership candidates Andrew Scheer, Kevin O’Leary, Rick Peterson, and Maxime Bernier during the Manning Centre Conference. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Referring to Ms. Raitt’s saying that Mr. O’Leary is “wrong” for Canada and the Conservatives, and Mr. Obhrai’s suggestion that Ms. Leitch’s campaigning could get immigrants killed, Mr. Jordan said, “I can’t remember attacks that were that targeted or that personal [in a party leadership race].”

Ms. Raitt, however, said she doesn’t think this contest has been “nasty.”

“I don’t think it’s been nasty at all,” she said. “You will see, if you go behind the stage at any of these events, we’re all talking to one another. … There’s good competition, but personal animosity isn’t happening. Everybody’s going to fold back fine into caucus.”

Ms. Raitt likened the leadership race to debates that happen at a cabinet table.

“You have your fight at the table, but if you don’t win, it doesn’t mean you go off and sulk,” she said. “It means that you stay around and you help explain the decision, you help support the decision. And that’s how I’ve always operated, and that’s part of being part of the party.”

Keith Beardsley, who was deputy chief of staff to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper, said this leadership race is actually “petty tame. Go back to the Clark-Mulroney wars. It was a hell of a lot nastier than what this is.”

He was referring the Progressive Conservative leadership race of 1983 when Brian Mulroney, who would become prime minister a year later, unseated former prime Minister Joe Clark as party leader. Among the things that happened during that contest, he said, was an instance of Mulroney supporters locking the convention doors on a group of Clark supporters to prevent them from voting.

“That was pretty vicious stuff,” he said, though he noted how Mr. Clark went on to become a prominent member in Mr. Mulroney’s cabinet.

“It’s going to be egos,” Mr. Beardsley said on whether the candidates in this Conservative leadership race can work together when it’s over. “It’s going to be the ego of who wins. I mean, do they want to take these people who have been crapping on them? And on the other side, for the people who lose, do they want to work for the guy they said really couldn’t do the job?”

Yet, Mr. Beardsley said that if Mr. O’Leary wins, there has been a great deal of ammunition created during the course of this leadership contest that the Liberals will be able to use.

It’s like when the Conservatives used clips showing Stéphane Dion going on the defensive about his previous government’s environmental record against leadership rival Michael Ignatieff in a Liberal leadership debate in 2006. “This is unfair. … Do you think it’s easy to make priorities?” Mr. Dion said in a clip, which was heavily utilized by the Conservatives in the lead-up to the 2008 election, when they faced the Dion-led Liberals.

“That was one of mine, actually,” Mr. Beardsley laughed. “If I was on [the Liberals’] side right now, I’d be building up data banks of quotes and comments and clips from debates and all sorts of stuff that people could use. That’s the beautiful thing about leadership races if you’re on the other side because you get all sorts of material. … Oh yeah, [the Liberals are] going to get a lot of stuff on this one.”

Robin Sears, a principal with Earnscliffe Strategy Group and past NDP operative, agreed.

“Of course, one of the risks of leadership debates is that you say things that don’t look so good that get repackaged and reused by your enemies,” he said.

But he said this Conservative leadership race doesn’t necessarily have more ill will between candidates than what’s typical of Conservative and Liberal leadership contests, though he said NDP leadership races tend to be more cordial. He said the Conservative race might seem rougher due to the role social media plays in it.

“I could wander the Château Laurier in the old days with a bottle of scotch and say terrible things about competitors, and be relatively comfortable that it wouldn’t appear in The Hill Times or The Globe and Mail,” Mr. Sears said. “But now I’ve got to be aware that it’s going to appear in social media about two minutes after I leave somebody’s room.”


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